candyPhoto: Nina HaleFor most of us, Halloween has a strong association with candy. When you’re little, you get to dress up and run around your neighborhood collecting it for free. When you’re a bit older, you get to dress up, get drunk, and buy it steeply discounted on Nov. 1. And when you’re a parent, you get to supervise kids on their candy-collecting mission, and sneak some after bedtime. Along with all this candy is the sense that, however old you get, Halloween signals a brief return to innocence.

Well, here’s news that might clear the mist from your eyes and leave a bitter taste in your mouth (and not the good, super-dark-chocolate kind): Your Halloween candy is keeping the child slave trade in Africa alive.

About half of the chocolate eaten in the U.S. comes from the Ivory Coast, where documented instances of forced child labor on cocoa farms persist despite a decade of pressure on chocolate companies to implement better oversight. And because corporations like Hershey’s (which has recently been found to be exploiting workers here in the U.S., too) and Cadbury manufacture their products using beans from all over the world that get mixed together, it’s highly likely that any chocolate bar you unwrap is made with at least some cacao grown by underage workers with little in the way of rights or compensation.

The U.S. State Department estimated that over 100,000 children work on Ivory Coast cocoa farms, and 10,000 of those could be victims of trafficking or enslavement, said Kelsie Evans, chocolate products coordinator for Equal Exchange, a fair trade co-op. A Knight-Ridder investigation in 2001 first gave the issue wide exposure, portraying the lives of boys as young as nine, who perform the backbreaking work of harvesting cocoa beans, while receiving beatings, inadequate meals, and little or no pay in return. Public pressure after the revelation led to the creation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol [PDF], which major chocolate companies signed in a pledge to create, by 2005, some kind of certification system to avoid exploiting child labor. But the deadline’s been delayed again and again, as companies have pushed back to weaken the protocol and hold up what Evans calls “token efforts” to demonstrate progress.

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“They’ve long claimed that certification transparency is not possible, or [they] can’t verify what’s happening on the ground,” says Evans. “But I think what Equal Exchange and other fair trade companies have shown is that you can [verify it].”

Kids from a Dominican Republic cocoa cooperativeAn elementary school in Yamasa, Dominican Republic, one of dozens serving the 10,000 families of the Fair Trade cocoa co-operative CONACADO.Equal Exchange sources organic cacao beans from small-scale family farming cooperatives in Latin America. And, while Evans acknowledged that it would require a transition period for a large chocolate company to change its practices, she pointed out that there’s currently an abundance of farmers with fair-trade ingredients to sell.

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So what can you do to spread the word about Big Chocolate’s dirty secret? Boycotting Halloween would be a major buzzkill — and might actually hurt more than it would help. “It’s definitely a heavy, scary topic that is not as much fun to talk about for a product that’s seen as such a source of joy,” Evans said. That’s why Equal Exchange has teamed up with human rights organization Global Exchange to promote the fifth annual Reverse Trick-or-Treating campaign, which invites families to trick-or-treat as usual, but hand back small fair-trade chocolates in exchange for their loot — a simple public awareness campaign with added power because the message comes from children whose peers on the other side of the world are enduring a real-life hardship.

“It’s a creative way to approach a big, complex, and depressing problem,” adds Evans.

Both Global Exchange and Equal Exchange offer kits you can order that contain fair-trade chocolates and informational cards to pass out on Halloween. As with all things organic and fair-trade, this chocolate is pricier than your average drug-store candy. But as with all things not mass-produced, it probably tastes better than a flimsy, waxy Hershey bar. As Evans says, “Fair trade costs more, but it cost more for a reason.”

If you really can’t bring yourself to spring for fancy chocolate (or maybe you’re one of those rare weirdos who doesn’t actually like chocolate), you can at least go visit their site and download cards and flyers instead.

Evans estimates that this Halloween, the Reverse Trick-or-Treating campaign will reach at least 200,000 households. That doesn’t mean every child laborer on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast will suddenly be free. But public awareness sparks public pressure, and maybe enough of it could finally push chocolate companies into complying with the Harkin-Engel Protocol, giving kids in West Africa the taste of freedom, and chocoholics everywhere a taste of guilt-free chocolate.